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Position preview: Needing a starter, Bears could draft CB first

The next cornerback the Bears draft in the first round might very well replace the last one they picked first.

Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II runs during the school’s pro day last month.
Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II runs during the school’s pro day last month.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Part 1 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.

The next cornerback the Bears draft in the first round might very well replace the last one they picked first.

General manager Ryan Pace’s decision to make 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller a salary-cap casualty last month increased the odds — exponentially — that he’ll take a cornerback 20th overall in the draft later this month.

He might not have to look far for his next starter. Greg Newsome II grew up on the South Side and moved to Carol Stream to play at Glenbard North. After a year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, he enrolled at Northwestern and became the first pure “three-and-done” player of the Pat Fitzgerald era.

He allowed a passer rating of 0.0 on third and fourth downs last year, per Pro Football Focus — no other cornerback in the draft can say that — and allowed one pass of more than 10 yards all season.

“It starts with the mentality,” he said after Northwestern’s pro day last month. “I’m a very confident player, and I think if I eliminate those deep routes, nobody is gonna beat us. . . . I don’t think there’s a secret. Just be confident and be a dog out there.”

Newsome won’t be the first cornerback taken. That honor figures to go to Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II or South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn. Both are sons of NFL royalty. Former cornerback Patrick Surtain went to three Pro Bowls; former wide receiver Joe Horn made four.

Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley figures to be drafted in the second half of the first round, too, and could be a Bears target.

The Bears could wait until the second or third round to take a cornerback, but this draft crop isn’t particularly deep. Passing on one in the first round might preclude them from finding an immediate starter.

The Bears don’t have a slam-dunk replacement to start opposite Jaylon Johnson, who started 13 games his rookie year before a season-ending shoulder injury. Desmond Trufant is a worthy investment at the veteran minimum, but he has been healthy enough to play only 15 of 32 games the last two years.

Kindle Vildor didn’t play significant defensive snaps as a rookie until Week 14, when Johnson and slot cornerback Buster Skrine were hurt. Former Steeler Artie Burns and former CFL star Tre Roberson were lost for the 2020 season before the Bears even played a game. Duke Shelley profiles better in the slot.

“[Vildor] is a good young player that we drafted and got better the more he played,” Pace said. “And with Trufant, I think you go back to him — he’s an experienced corner. We feel fortunate we were able to attain him the way we did when you look at it.”

Pace, though, would be more comfortable with adding one more name to that list.

CORNERBACK

Grading the Bears’ need: High. The Bears need a long-term quarterback, of course. Beyond that, they have only three starting jobs open heading into the draft: strong safety, where the team has welcomed cheap veteran starters the last two seasons; right tackle, where they brought back Germain Ifedi, who finished last season at the position; and cornerback. Finding Kyle Fuller’s replacement is more pressing — and essential to a promising 2021 — than improving the other two spots.

On the roster: Jaylon Johnson, Desmond Trufant, Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley, Artie Burns, Xavier Crawford, Teez Tabor, Tre Roberson and Michael Joseph.

The five best prospects: Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn, Northwestern’s Greg Newsome II, Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley and Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr.

Keep an eye on: Where Surtain and Horn get drafted. This year’s defensive-line, safety and edge-rusher classes are so weak at the top that the best two cornerbacks figure to be the first two defensive players chosen. If both go in the top 10, the Bears will have to wait another 10 picks to see if the third cornerback falls all the way to them.

Close to home: Say this for Nate Hobbs: After playing four years in Lovie Smith’s defense, he knows what’s expected of him in the NFL. The Louisville, Kentucky, native started 35 games in four years at Illinois, totaling three interceptions and 18 defended passes. He was a team captain last year but played in only five games because of a shoulder injury and coronavirus contact tracing. He’ll be a late pick or undrafted free agent.